Ragnar NWP (or: a long post for a long race)

Thirteen Type 1 Diabetics. Two Vans. Two Hundred Miles.

This past weekend I had the great pleasure of taking part in the Ragnar Northwest Passage Relay with Insulindependence. Going into the event I really didn’t quite know what to expect. Certainly I’d heard of the legendary Hood to Coast on which the Ragnar series is based, and I’d heard lots of stories from previous IN participants, but it’s far enough outside of anything I’ve done that I just couldn’t relate.

Our story begins at the Philadelphia International Airport where I was informed at 4AM that my flight had been cancelled. The nice woman behind the counter was able to get me re-booked onto a new flight which was literally cancelled while we stood there. Fighting back the tears, I waited patiently while she found a flight that stuck and I was off; delayed but on my way. After landing in Seattle I called The Hammer for pickup only to find that the van had been broken into and two of my teammates had their possessions stolen. Note to whomever did this: I hope very unpleasant things happen to you in the near future. You are bad people. Certainly it had been an inauspicious beginning to my adventure, but fortunately that was about to change.

After a brief sojourn at REI where I was very good and didn’t buy anything, we piled into the van for the drive up to Bellingham to meet up with the rest of the team and have an amazing home cooked meal before turning in for the night.

Race day dawned cold an rainy. The Local Pacific Northwesterners among us swore this was unusual. We didn’t believe them.

Now would be a good time to lay out some of the logistics of a Ragnar: a typical team consists of twelve runners and potentially one or two dedicated drivers. The runners are all placed in a running order and must stay in the order for the entire race (mostly). Runner One starts the race and runners two through five pile into the aptly named Van One and drive to meet Runner One at a pre-determined point to hand off to Runner Two. Van One then collects a slightly smellier Runner One and drives to the next hand off point. This continues until the final runner in Van One hands off to the first runner in Van Two (me). This continues until each runner has completed three legs and, approximately two hundred miles later, the finish line is crossed. In theory, there is plenty of time to rest as while one van is transporting active runners, the other has several hours of downtime. This theory is patently false.

So where was I? Oh right. As I was the lead-off runner for Van Two, we travelled directly from the starting line to the point on the course where I would begin. After sitting through the mandatory safety gear check and briefing, we walked over to a local diner for some breakfast. I had a huge breakfast burrito, home fried potatoes, and three pancakes smothered in syrup (hey, I was about to run!) and we headed back to the van feeling fat and happy. Three guesses what happened next. That’s right, I went low. Wait, what? That’s right – somehow I ate enough carbs to support a small nation for a week and my Dexcom showed me plummeting. This really gave me pause, as I obviously needed to correct, and ideally overcorrect just this >;|<; much so I'd be at a comfortable good sugar level to run in a couple of hours. Fortunately I was surrounded by other Type 1 runners, and they gave me some examples of things they had tried in the past with success. Life was good leading into the first hand off.

Leg One: 6.5 Miles, Total Elevation Gain – 722′

Finally I get to run. Blood sugar? Good. Warmup? Motions gone through, but not really. Mental preparedness? Excellent. Legs? Stiff and heavy. Well you can’t win ’em all, right? After a morning of waiting around making Ewok jokes (don’t ask) I was ready. Admittedly, one thing I was nervous about was the handoff. You see, the athlete handing the baton (okay it’s really a slap bracelet) to me is a kind of legend in diabetic athletic circles. To my knowledge he was the first diabetic to ever complete the Ironman (back when it really was “the” Ironman) and still holds the marathon record for a diabetic runner. And he is coming at me like a freight train. No time to think. Grab the bracelet and RUN! Okay I’m going a little too fast. Slow it down a notch. No closed roads or intersections so I have to impatiently wait for a hole in traffic to Frogger my way across. First mile down in a tick over 7 minutes which is way too fast for the lack of a good warmup and having stopped at no less than three intersections. Pass some people in the second mile and slow it down, but only by about 5 seconds. Still too fast. Third mile pass a couple more people and slow it down to about a 7:20. Better. A little hill here. More intersections. Is that a hill ahead? Wait… DEAR GOD WE HAVE TO RUN UP THAT THING?!?! Okay here we go. No we don’t. I am shattered. I am walking up this hill. Two of the runners I had passed go by me in slow motion. I may never get to the top. Wait, I think the end is just around that bend. I’m running again. I turn the bend, but the hill keeps going. That’s just mean. Keep running. Finally over the top and on to some trails. Beautiful stream below the trail. I’m having serious double getting back down under an 8 minute pace now. Starting to feel a little better. My heart no longer punching my sternum. Garmin says 5.75 miles and here’s the “One Mile To Go” sign. There’s a volunteer. Here comes the finish. Hand off the bracelet and I’m done. One down, two to go!

Now I get to ride in the van and cheer on my teammates. This is so cool. I’m tired from my run, but so excited to see everyone running that I quickly feel better. My blood sugar is spot on (and would remain so for hours after!). Finally Van Two hands the baton back to Van One and we skip ahead to the next van exchange point to try and get some rest. Unfortunately I don’t sleep well in the best of circumstances, so try as I might I didn’t get a wink. A little before 2AM I gave up and started getting ready to run my leg. It was chilly again, but I knew once I began running I’d be fine in shorts and a singlet. After getting my headlamp and other required safety gear ready some of us headed to the High School gym next to the exchange to find a bathroom and were thrilled to see some students selling coffee.

Leg Two: 8.7 Miles, Total Elevation Gain 722′

I may have mentioned elsewhere that I don’t run with headphones. I have nothing against those that do (except in large road races, but that’s another post), it just doesn’t work for me. That having been said, if I was ever going to want music it was for this leg. The solution? Road Noise kindly donated some of their reflective running vests to our team. These things are VERY cool. Plug your favorite music player in, press play, and you’re golden. My only gripe was that the pouch didn’t quite fit my iPhone4 so I kind of had to jam it in. Still, what a great product for situations like these. The volunteer calls our number and here I go! Feeling much better than the start of my first leg. Running through a sleepy little town. Empty streets. No human being in sight. Glance at the Garmin. 6:20 pace. Whoahhh Nelly. Slow it down. Better. First mile about 7:14. Feeling very good. Up a short hill and over a bridge into a park of some sort. No more town. Start heading up a hill, steep but not brutal. Second mile down and pacing is good. Still going uphill. No human being in sight other than passing vans. Still going uphill. Third mile down and I still can’t see the top. My team van drives past cheering. Finally the hill is done. Still feel good, and now I get to go down. It’s dark here. Lonely. I lose myself a little in the running and it’s glorious. More hills. Still pacing well and feeling tired, but good. Pass some runners and make sure to say a few encouraging words as I go past. It was nice to see them, just for human contact. My watch tells me I’ve got about two miles to go. I just got passed for the first time. Man he looks fit. Passed me seven miles in, on a flat, while I was holding a 7 flat pace. No shame there, but the instinct comes out and I pick it up even as we go over some rollers. Pass another runner. The end is coming and I have stayed reasonably close to the fast guy. WHERE’S MY RUNNER? Oh here he comes… That was amazing. I want to do it again.

The second go around in the van is quite a bit different form the first time. We’re all sleep deprived and a bit loopy. Things that were funny earlier are now hilarious. We’re all bonding over running, diabetes, and anything else that pops into our heads. Most of us had never met face to face 48 hours before and now felt as though we’d been friends for years. CGM trends are compared and discussed, dried young coconut is eaten, runners are cheered, nighttime blogging aids are used. Morning dawns foggy, and we’re instructed to keep our safety vests on. A coffee shop opened early for us. We go over Desperation Pass to Whidbey Island, and it’s beautiful. Finally we are done again.

We travel to the final van exchange point and search for a place to eat breakfast. Finally we found a small place on the water that smelled of fresh food and pastries. The cheerful woman behind the counter must have realized our state, as she first said they were wrapping up breakfast, but after a glance at our fallen face checked with the chef to see what was left. The list of things left sounded great, so we ordered it. All of it. This took a surprising amount of effort to impart, as she seemed to think we were joking. Finally food arrived, and all was right again. After breakfast we headed back to the exchange point, but I knew sleep wouldn’t come and didn’t really try. I freshened up a little and changed my clothes. From there it was a waiting game.

Leg Three: 7.7 Miles, 230′ Total Elevation Gain (Net Downhill)

By now it’s Saturday mid-day. The sun is almost directly overhead, but it’s perfect blue skies and not too hot. Time moves slowly, then suddenly it’s time to go. Let’s take this one out nice and easy. 6:29 is not what I meant by easy. Slow it down. Last leg, and completely flat so far. Have fun. Pass two runners and I’m running with flowing barley fields on both sides. I can see the Puget Sound shining in the distance and I’m running toward it. Steady 7:15-7:20 pace. Nice. I can smell the sound now. Quick and violent downhill and now I’m running along the water. Here comes the uphill taking me into the trees. Beautiful PNW forest with a welcome break from the sun. Back out in to the open. I turn right and glance behind, the runners I passed are too far back to see. At least there are houses and other signs of life here. Some rolling hills but nothing too bad. Much easier than the first two legs in that respect. My van passes me cheering. I want cowbell. They can’t find it so start making cowbell noises. That’s pretty funny. Heading down toward the sound again. Still no runners in sight. My watch beeps and I have just shy of three miles to go. My legs finally feel heavy. The sun is pounding down and reflecting on the tarmac. I’m struggling to maintain 7:40 on the flat now. Just keep swimming… There. There’s the end. I’m done. Sweaty hugs all around.

Ragnar NWP was both much more difficult, and much more fun, than I had anticipated. Everyone on the team was good people, and the learning opportunities available when you put so many Type 1’s in a situation involving prolonged exercise, sleep deprivation, and unusual eating patterns is invaluable. My next Ragnar will be Del Sol in Arizona this February where teammates then will be the other current Insulindependence Captains.

I can’t wait.

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One Response to Ragnar NWP (or: a long post for a long race)

  1. Steve Kooy says:

    Aren’t Ragnar’s great! I’ve run the DC one three times. I skipped last year so this will be my first on insulin. I’m a little nervous as no one else in my group is diabetic. I’m bringing an instruction sheet. 😀
    Steve from dd

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